Zinke open to tweaks as plan draws strong reactions

Source: Rob Hotakainen, E&E New • Posted: Friday, January 5, 2018

Talk about a reversal.

While critics estimated the Obama administration put 94 percent of the outer continental shelf off-limits to oil and gas development, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said today he wants to make more than 90 percent of the OCS open for leasing.

But Zinke said his proposal for 47 lease sales from 2019 to 2024 — the most ever for a five-year planning period — is just a start, and he made it clear he’s open to tweaking the proposal.

“Today’s announcement lays out the options that are on the table and starts a lengthy and robust public comment period,” Zinke said. “Just like with mining, not all areas are appropriate for offshore drilling, and we will take that into consideration in the coming weeks.”

The Interior Department said it will hold public meetings around the country beginning Jan. 16 to receive comments on Zinke’s plan, which calls for potential lease sales in 25 of the 26 OCS planning areas, including off California.

According to the Interior Department, the 47 lease sales would include 19 off the coast of Alaska, seven in the Pacific region, 12 in the Gulf of Mexico and nine in the Atlantic region (Greenwire, Jan. 4).

Zinke said gas and oil drilling had “taken a backseat” during the Obama years but that would no longer be the case.

“Today we’re embarking on a new path for energy dominance in America,” Zinke said.

With the plan affecting so much of the country, the robust debate Zinke expects is fully underway and certain to intensify.

A key measure will be how Congress reacts, with members getting 60 days to review any final plan.

The Interior Department said 155 members of the House and Senate sent letters to Zinke earlier in support of a new five-year plan. It would replace the current five-year plan finalized last January under the Obama administration and scheduled to run through 2022.

House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said the new plan would put all coastal communities at risk of an environmental disaster and open up all federal waters except Alaska’s Bristol Bay to potential drilling, including areas along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts previously held off-limits by both parties.

“President Trump wants you to know his oil rigs are bigger and work better than anybody else’s,” Grijalva said today. “This will do nothing to put us on a sustainable energy path or decrease prices for Americans. Trump’s plan means more oil drilled here and then sold overseas. Oil companies get the profits while towns from Washington to California and Maine to Florida bear the enormous costs we know are coming.”

In the Senate, Louisiana’s two Republican senators praised the plan and predicted it will create thousands of jobs for their state.

Sen. Bill Cassidy said the proposal would mean “better paychecks and opportunities for American workers and more affordable energy for their families,” while Sen. John Kennedy called it an “extraordinary moment for American energy.”

And in the House, Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said he wanted Congress to make it easier for energy companies to use seismic testing as a way to help them locate new places to drill.

“Seismic research is vital to unlocking energy potential off our coasts, and federal red tape is standing in the way,” Bishop said.

Bishop also took note of the big differences between the Trump and Obama administrations.

“The previous administration’s approach to offshore development started from the premise of considering as little as possible,” Bishop said. “The Trump administration starts from the premise of considering as much as possible.”

But Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) called Zinke’s plan “an outrageous attack on our coastal economies, culture, and environment.”

“Washingtonians want to keep thriving on the coast and I will fight to protect their jobs, communities, and environment,” she said.

Among interest groups, reaction broke down along predictable lines, with business groups saying the plan could lower energy prices and boost the economy while environmental groups feared the worst.

Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, said the new plan “unlocks the vast potential of American energy and expands our ability to export oil and gas to our allies around the world.”

“For decades, our nation has needlessly limited our own ability to harness oil and gas resources,” she said. “This new plan sets a much different course.”

The National Parks Conservation Association said it fears the drilling plan could put some of the 88 national parks on coastlines at risk, including Acadia in Maine.

“For the first time in decades, the waters, wildlife and local economies of coastal parks like Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina and Channel Islands National Park in California will be at risk to the dangers of drilling,” said Nick Lund, NPCA’s senior manager for conservation programs.